Best Albums of 2015

“Friends, I have met
Lovers have slept and wept
Promises to stay had never been kept
This bare truth of which most won’t share
I hope you share, I hope you share”

-Benjamin Clementine, “Cornerstone”

Intro

It has been another year and what a year it has been.

Hoo boy, 2015 is in the running for the best of my existence. For one, I learned to tolerate eggplant. And the Royals won the World Series! And a bunch of other accomplishments that would be too boastful to list. Hot dog.

And laced into every moment, there you were, sweet Music. Even though I will one day be as insignificant as pound of peas, you basked in my triumphs and provided support as I reinvented myself through failure. And there were people there, too – loved ones. Thank you, thank you, with the entirety of my heart, thank you.

My year was good, but the world as a whole faced a complex dose of highs and lows: terrorism, bigotry, baffling uprisings, etc. If we are to get through it, I look no further than the power of music.

Auld lang syne:

The Best Albums of 2015

10. Silversun Pickups – Better Nature

Defining Track – “Latchkey Kids

I’ve listened to Silversun Pickups for years, hoping to find some underlying brilliance. I thought for sure there was something there but I had nothing to show for it.

They made it easy for me this time. Much like Vampire Weekend did with their masterpiece, Modern Vampires of the City, Silversun Pickups made a near perfect album by honing their strengths.

What killed my buzz on previous albums was their incessant droning and trippy riffs. I realized too late that the eviscerating “Panic Switch” was an outlier, not the standard. This band could shred, they just didn’t do it enough to keep my attention. Silversun Pickups aren’t true ravagers, but they can inflict damage when provoked.

And this is the album they embraced it. I stuck my cheek out, daring for contact, and they knocked my face in. That riff in “Connection” is what causes the ground to shake during lighting storms. I didn’t think there was a cooler hook than “Panic Switch,” but “Latchkey Kids” just left my brain liquefied on the floor. And the monumental six-minute build on “Ragamuffin” sounds as if it was ripped right out of the dusky sky.

Each track elicits an, “Oh, yeah, this song!” reaction, which means additional listens are waiting over the horizon. And for the Silversun Pickups, the sun has finally risen.

9. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye

Defining Track – “Keep You On My Side

If you’re somewhat ingrained in popular music, this (entirely subjective) list might be one of the biggest collections of well-known artists I’ve compiled since my childish beginnings. It is not out of laziness or borrowing from other sites; these are pure and reactionary. I admit, sometimes I try to go rogue to diversify the music a bit. Not so much this year.

I wrote about each album as an individual before assembling into what you see here. Only then did I see what the finished piece looks like, which, to me, sums up this year in music: Like it or not, this is it.

CHVRCHES was right in the thick of that early 2010s alt-pop surge that grew stale after the thousandth cookie-cutter band rolled out of the factory. There were bound to be some flounders (not naming any names), but, percentage wise, some had to find the next progression. Hence, Every Open Eye.

Describing the music as glassy synth beats with catchy hooks makes it sound as if nothing has changed, but there is a warmth here that matches the artistry. If there is one knock I had against alt-pop bands, it’s that the aesthetics took over at expense of the emotions. It took a couple listens, but tracks such as “Keep You On My Side,” “High Enough to Carry You Over” and “Down Side of Me” finally broke through. I’m getting chills listening as I write, justifying its place on this list. “Afterglow” shines.

Some songs in this sophomore effort could fit on CHVRCHES’ shruggable first album, but they fortify the bridge that led to this current stage of musicianship. It’s a sound foundation.

Side Note/Bragging Right: I’ve always thought of myself as a trendspotter (I don’t have the influence of a setter) and Spotify finally produced a way to justify my claims. Check out Found Them First, a site that tells you which artists you streamed before they became huge. Among my “discoveries:” CHVRCHES, Hozier (First 2 percent of all listeners. Take that to church!), Run the Jewels, Shawn Mendes, Lorde and Iggy Azalea.

My ego will use this site for sustenance.

8. Tame Impala – Currents

Defining Track – “The Less I Know The Better

Here’s the third artist in a row that found his or her peak so far in 2015, though this may be the most dramatic shift in identity.

When I heard that frontman Kevin Parker wrote and produced this album at his home (he did essentially everything you hear on Currents), my respect shot skyward. That’s a show of immense musicianship and a profound dedication to the craft.

For those familiar with the old Tame Impala, this is not that. Trading guitars for synth, the oddities of this style are less obvious to detect because of the piled on layers. Much like onions, cakes and ogres.

The album starts with the eight-minute odyssey, “Let It Happen,” which infuses its frictionless dance grooves with a melancholic overtone. There is no urge to skip or fast-forward. If you want to woo a woman with class, few statements are as direct and effective as “‘Cause I’m A Man.” I could go track by track since there is so much rummaging we can do with each one. But I need only to look at a humdinger like “The Less I Know the Better,” a seemingly simple dance ballad, and it’s evident how far this band has come.

Though trippy, psychedelic bands often feed on disorder and letting the music flow, Tame Impala has reinvented their style with precision and articulation. Let Parker’s uprising be a lesson: If you want to make a great album, be talented and do everything yourself.

7. Torres – Sprinter

Defining track – “Sprinter

I would like for everyone to listen to that song posted above, at least once. A spiritual outcry born out of years of marinating over secular and personal identity, I am rendered stunned with each listen.

Mackenzie Scott, known musically as Torres, was raised Baptist and eventually went a different path. The title track (as well as a few other songs on album) discusses her upbringing and her escape from that lifestyle. Unlike many of those who turn their back on faith, I don’t sense any hatred. It’s all a choice:

“There’s freedom to, and freedom from
Freedom to run, from everyone.”

Though often soft and unassuming, each song is rugged from emotional wear, and she’s just 24. I would like to quote lines all day, but you might as well just listen to the whole thing. And that you should. The opener, “Strange Hellos,” can be a little off-putting, as it’s the one time on the album you can sense anger. After that, the album plunges into unfathomable depths of beauty and sorrow. I delight in delving into her tremendous songwriting abilities.

Much like a Lykke Li or Fiona Apple, this isn’t an album I’ll be cranking in the car or playing in public. “Ferris Wheel” rips through your heart with unrequited love until you find yourself saying, “I’ve been there.” The final track, “The Exchange,” somehow submerges you into even more heartache, coming from the perspective of an adoptive parent and the tragic separation anxiety that comes with it:

“Mother, father
I’m underwater
And I don’t think you can pull me out of this”

Bottom to top, I can say something about this album that I reserve for sunsets and mountain climbs: breathtaking.

6. Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues

Defining track – “Familiarity

This a juvenile sentence, but it holds as much fortitude as anything in this post: The Punch Brothers are a folk band that can play movements. That is, they can play segmented chunks of music that sound like different songs all belonging to the same tapestry. Playing these movements in succession creates what we call a composition (see also: Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata“; Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody“). They have resurrected a lost art of musicianship, as they have done with their brand of folk. Yet here they are in 2015, making it all sound relevant.

I won’t have to look much past the first track, “Familiarity,” to justify The Phosphorescent Blues’ placement on this list. The brilliant 10-minute composition weaves plucky mandolin folk with an arrangement not unlike century-old classics and I can’t find a comparison. I’m trying to grasp how difficult of a task that is. The only way you accomplish such a task is with superb talent and an extreme respect for the craft. This band once did a spot-on cover of Radiohead’s Kid A. Of all the songs!

Frontman Chris Thile appreciates music on an incomprehensible level. Look at how he gushes over classical music while ripping Bach and Radiohead within seconds of each other:

Set your mood to chill with some of album’s other refreshments: “Julep” belongs in your cup on a clear fall day, “I Blew It Off” is how you turn folk into digestible yet respectable pop and hold on to your loved one as the sun sets during “Little Lights.”

Simple pleasures, not so simple music.

5. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Defining Track – “I Love You, Honeybear

When Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty, grabs his guitar and tells his sometimes endearing, oftentimes mawkish, little tales, it demands attention. Case in point, from a song titled “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.”:

“She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes,
And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream.
I wonder if she even knows what that word means.
Well, it’s literally not that.”

I don’t think there was a funnier song in 2015. He tore that poor girl to shreds. Tillman’s storytelling, humorous or sentimental, offers a bizarre form of audible escapism. It’s hard to describe.

Here’s his attention to detail: The electricity put upon “True Affection” made it the least FJM-sounding song on the album. I heard later that it was inspired by a relationship he tried to build through text and emails. The song reflected that synthetic nature. Genius.

But in between these fleeting flings, the album pulls his wife into the narrative, also referred to, ironically, as “Honeybear.” The title track, as well as “Chateau Lobby #4,” “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” and the moving album-capper, “I Went to the Store One Day,” show how deep Tillman’s songwriting can dive. My oh my, it’s profound.

I could pile on examples and anecdotes speckled throughout this record, but I’ll wrap this up highlighting a little tune called “Holy Shit.” Written, on the day of his wedding, I don’t think I’ve heard any song that captures the chaos going through your mind in those hours. Society forms the structure for love’s ultimate status, that being marriage. So it’s kind of silly to think of all the unnatural hoops you go through because of the natural instinct to love. These are the thoughts of a good songwriter.

Fun fact: Tillman is a former member of the indie band Fleet Foxes and the metal outfit Demon Hunter. Fans of either have probably never heard of the other. How’s that for range?

4. RED – Of Beauty and Rage

Defining track – “Darkest Part

I wrote one review this year. This was the one album that begged for it. From that original post:

Of Beauty and Rage, (RED’s) fifth studio album, does more than bring back their old sound. It imbues it with the strength of fire and the grace of roses. The album title is a hint at the dueling melodies, but the synchronization of destruction and perfection are oftentimes astonishing. It’s a tremendous feat to present so much love and anguish in one collection.”

RED disintegrates a rotten memory on “Fight to Forget” and then grieves about sin with the sincerest delicacy on the next track, “Of These Chains.” These two songs represent the furthest extremes on this entire list – heavy electric rock and symphonic tenderness. The dichotomy of the album overall leaves me weary after a full listen, which has more to do with its reach and depth than it does for its replayability.

You can read more about them in that link above, but I have to mention two songs that are so intense, I had to step away while writing this and succumb to their raw power.

“Darkest Part” is one of the most emotional vocal performances I’ve ever heard from a rock song. The pain and despair pummels your chest with heartache, whether you’re ready it or not. Haunting, overwhelming and perfectly placed bass drops, this song deserves a place in music history.

And “Falling Sky.” How did you expect the apocalypse to sound? Devastation with every beat, panic in every note, this claustrophobic cataclysm is probably my single favorite song of the year:

“Now it’s coming to find me,
This war that I deserve
Now it burns across this shattered earth,
I lift my eyes to fire”

Bravo to everyone involved with this collective masterpiece. I felt everything.

3. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Defining track – “King Kunta

The aggregate views of To Pimp a Butterfly make it the album of 2015, but not without its polarizing tendencies. The challenge now is to justify its reign to the uninitiated while, as a white suburban man, sounding educated on the heavy topics crammed into this rap juggernaut.

I hear jazz and funk instead of sick beats and rock samples. Why, that’s so unassuming and subtle, it’s as if this album is trying to have an intelligent discussion instead of spitting in my face. OK, let’s talk.

As alluded to in the intro, America’s had a rough year. Racism still exists in heaps and casts a dark shadow on what it means to be “One nation, under God.” In an era where people feel the need to remind us that “black lives matter,” To Pimp a Butterfly came along when we needed it most.

As empathetic as I want to be, I’m not going to act as if I understand the violent side of racism. And this is not the place to spew out my political and social agendas. So in the confines of this album, I’ll let the songs and their messages speak for themselves:

“Wesley’s Theory” – The lack of monetary understanding can be the ruin of black celebrities (Wesley Snipes’ tax evasion).

“King Kunta” – The two sides of African-American history (“King” referring to a high-class icon, “Kunta” referring to Kunta Kinte from Roots) and how it’s always an uphill battle.

“Institutionalized” – The “institution” of money makes us “institutionalized.” Clever.

“Hood Politics” – This song is interesting. His vocals and vocabulary suggest this perspective is coming from his childhood self, from which he has survivor’s guilt coming out of the hood. The subsequent verses go political and then deal with the rap industry at large. It also features a sample from No. 2 on this list. Synergy!

“The Blacker the Berry”/ “i” – I don’t think there’s any coincidence that these two tracks are back-to-back on the album, as they contradict one another. There’s the self-respect of being African-American in the playful “i,” in which the affirmation “I love myself” sends listeners a positive message of embracing who you are. On the other hand, you have “The Blacker the Berry,” in which Lamar calls himself “the biggest hypocrite of 2015” for hating himself because of those same reasons. I can’t get over the dichotomy he was able to pull off.

The album is suitable for casual listening, though you should know its contents beforehand. Many people I’ve talked to about this album might have fallen into that pit. On the surface, you might get glimpses of the lyrics and assume he’s no different than any other drugs, sex and alcohol rapper (the N-word has that effect). But Kendrick Lamar is a fine storyteller and he confronts some this country’s most vicious plagues head-on.

To Pimp a Butterfly falls short of being consumable for the masses, unlike many other great albums in the past decade. But in an age where truth and understanding crumble at the mercy of bigotry, this album might be the most necessary collection of viewpoints an artist has produced.

*Lamar’s rap style (“flow”) is as distinctive and magnificent as anyone. I won’t waste your time with details here, but if you want the most in-depth Kendrick Lamar analysis you can find, check out  Composer’s Corner. He has the best breakdowns of rap anywhere on the Internet.

2. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell

Defining track – “Should Have Known Better

If I had not seen Sufjan Stevens live this year, I don’t think I would have understood the emotional depth of this album. He started the concert by playing the album in its entirety, start to finish. I don’t recall him saying a spoken word in between, as the music and the artistry left the venue spellbound.

Stevens’ inspiration for Carrie & Lowell came a few years after the passing of his mother, Carrie, and his stepfather, Lowell. The mellow-to-inspirational “Should Have Known Better” sets up the somber record and bravely tackles a looming burden when faced with loss: grief. Notice how the track assumes a positive outlook late in the song. That’s class-A material for showing how music can tell a three-dimensional story in less than five minutes.

As a whole, Carrie & Lowell is a welcome return to Stevens’ indie/acoustic roots. The appropriate exploitation of the subject matter (seen most vibrantly in “Eugene,” “Fourth of July” and the title track) gives listeners a panoramic view of Stevens’ own childhood to his parents’ death, and his subsequent vices as a result. It’s one of the more minimal-sounding albums he’s ever produced, but its emotional scope makes it his most dense. From “Fourth of July”:

“The evil it spread like a fever ahead
It was night when you died, my firefly
What could I have said to raise you from the dead?
Oh, could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?”

Back to the concert: When Stevens finally broke the spell and decided to talk, he brought up a little soliloquy about death. It was… interesting. He talked about bacteria in our body whose sole purpose was to eat our rotting carcass and that death was something to embrace. It got real in there! My takeaway: Because we were born of this earth, and whether conscious of it or not, we will always be a part of it as we decompose in the ground.

And as this album proves, a certain rebirth can also happen, too. One of the magical properties of music: life after death.

1. Benjamin Clementine – At Least For Now

Defining track – “Condolence

Benjamin Clementine built everything you hear from years living a ragged lifestyle. The condensed version: He left his home in London at 19, flew to Paris, lived in hostels and used his penchant for performing to earn money. This explains not only his lack of shoes, but his humble refrains about not having a home and hoping your passions can turn into a life support. Is it too bold to say that this is exactly what the music industry needs? You can find artists in many forms, but some of the best insights come from those who give 100 percent of themselves to their art without a safety net below.

It only took three years of destitution before Clementine was playing bigger venues and scoring a record label deal. His something-from-nothing story is remarkable, but in every interview I read about him, he would rather discuss his music than his past. Fair enough.

Clementine’s signature style is without compare: jittery piano ballads accompanied by aromatic strings and percussive cameos throughout. Meanwhile, Clementine scampers through his instrumentals with a poetic sing-song approach that is anything besides orthodox. He didn’t have conventional musical training, surprise surprise. As a result, it’s as if his sound is a product of an immense creative outpouring. He needed to release his message in any way that he could; paintbrushes and turntables would not do.

I watched a live performance of his online (video below) and it darn near moved me to tears. His voice alone can captivate you, but look at his writing. These are but a sampling of words from a wise and embattled soul (from “Winston Churchill’s Boy”):

“Never in the field of human affection
Had so much been given for so few attention”

How can you not root for this man? Does he have your attention yet? At Least for Now won’t latch onto your brain with catchy hooks, it’s not great for any parties and you probably won’t be blaring this in your car. But each time this album evokes a tear, goosebump or jaw drop, I am reminded of what a force of nature music can be, why I keep coming back for more and why I can’t get enough. And that, my friends, is why we listen.

 

Novelty Prizes

Random consolations because 3,500 words wasn’t enough.

Best Narrative
Logic – The Incredible True Story
Logic’s progressive rapping and the guy who voices Cowboy Bebop playing, fittingly, the captain of futuristic spacecraft will make you think about existence: past, present and future.

Best WTFery
Kid Cudi – Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven
What is going on here? Mentally or geographically, I can’t identify Cud’s plane of existence at this point.

Most Mesmerizing Music Video
Chairlift – “Ch-Ching” (album out next year)
There are some songs that are better with the visual. That choreography doesn’t know what genre it is and yet it makes total sense. I’m trying to master that 27-9-9-23 move:

Most Appreciated Throwback
Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
I couldn’t call it one of the best albums of the year, but it was definitely unique and it filled a massive void in R&B.

Best, Hey, Whoa, This is Actually Good
Papa Roach – F.E.A.R.
Using the mantra “Face Everything and Rise,” I can’t find better arena rock anywhere. This album is a PED that leaves no trace.

Best Band You’ve Probably Only Heard on TV
Ruelle
I heard “Take it All” on a commercial for some show, and chills ran rampant up my spine. It’s not on an album yet, but there is an EP.

Best Comeback
Blur – The Magic Whip
Can you pick Damon Albarn’s best musical project? They are all brilliant.

Previous Year-End Lists

2010 | 2011 | 2012 | *2013 | 2014

*I still regret that format.

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